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Work and the Law of Human Progress

Speech by Ron Johnson, Association for Good Government Conference at Goulburn, 14-15 August 2010.

Ladies and Gentlemen, my topic today is Work and the Law of Human Progress. I’d like to open my talk by thanking Faye and Richard Giles for their ongoing dedication and hard work in propagating the teaching of Henry George and for organising this conference.  Beside me here is a gift for Richard and Faye from the ACT Branch to thank them in particular for their assistance in our educational efforts in Canberra. This tree is a fine specimen of Wollemia Nobilis commonly known as the Wollemi Pine. (the ultimate survivor of the plant world)

The teaching of Henry George is the “Wollemi Pine” of politico-economic thought. The moral and economic truths in which Georgist philosophy is grounded may be traced back to the dawn of human existence. The Georgist movement has both prospered and been close to extinction- yet it has survived. This tree stands as a symbolic reminder that our educational movement for social justice still lives and hopefully, if we can follow the example set by Richard and Faye, in the 21st Century will again attract mass support.

We meet here today one week prior to a Federal Election in circumstances where several months ago (following the release of the Henry Tax Review) we almost had a public debate about the merits of government collecting significantly more of the Rent of mining land. Admittedly there was some confusion between the flawed idea of collecting a super-profits based form of rent versus the Georgist idea of collecting site value rent irrespective of profits.

Nonetheless, it has been decades since such important ideas have been so prominent in public discussion. This public discussion is in itself a mark of progress. Now there is a big challenge for our movement- to build upon this progress and to make sure that the foundations of our educational work are grounded in Justice and a true interpretation of George's work central to which (as we have heard) is the natural equality of rights that we all have to labour upon and enjoy the Earth.

Speaking of progress, Henry George asks readers of Progress and Poverty:

The law of human progress, what is it but the moral law? Just as social adjustments promote justice, just as they acknowledge

the equality of right between man and man, just as they insure to each the perfect liberty which is bounded only by the equal liberty of every other must civilisation advance. Just as they fail in this, must advancing civilisation come to a halt and recede. Political economy and social science cannot teach any lessons that are not embraced in the simple truths that were taught to poor fishermen and Jewish peasants by One who eighteen hundred years ago was crucified- the simple truths which, beneath the warpings of selfishness and the distortions of superstition, seem to underlie every religion that has ever striven to formulate the spiritual yearnings of man.

This is one of quite a number of different summaries of the Law of Human Progress that George provides to his readers. George appropriately here refers to the teachings of Jesus. It is a recurring theme in George's work that we can only find happiness, peace, freedom and justice for ourselves if we strive to attain these things for other people, especially those less fortunate than ourselves. This is consistent with the teaching of Jesus wherein he calls upon people to obey the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and the amplification and intensification of this idea that Jesus also taught- for us to love one another even as Jesus has loved us.

In “The Condition of Labour” George reminds us that the reform we seek has both an ethical (equal rights) and an economic side (ie. Single tax on land values) land that in his view, the ethical side is more important. He explains that “the beneficent and far-reaching revolution we aim at is too great a thing to be accomplished by 'intelligent self interest,' and can be carried by nothing less than the religious conscience.”

Progress and Poverty, Book X, Chapter 5 “The Central Truth” places great emphasis upon the need to conform our social structures with “liberty” and “justice”, the supreme natural law of the universe. By “liberty” and “justice” George clearly means the starting point must be an equal right to use land.

He wrote:

Our primary social adjustment is a denial of justice. In allowing one man to own the land on which and from which other men must live, we have made them his bondsmen in a degree which increases as material progress goes on. This is the subtile alchemy that in ways they do not realise is extracting from the masses in every civilised country the fruits of their weary toil; that is instituting a harder and more hopeless slavery in place of that which has been destroyed; that is bringing political despotism out of political freedom, and must soon transmute democratic institutions into anarchy.”

From a Christian point of view it might be tempting to surmise that what George is really asking of us is simply to love one another as Jesus taught. This may be largely true, however, George is very specific that people “must stand on equal terms with reference to the bounty of nature”. George is talking about a true Christian love that recognises that God has granted us all an equality of  rights to work and live upon the Earth.

He writes:

“...It is something grander than Benevolence, something more august than Charity- it is Justice herself that demands of us to right this wrong. Justice that will not be denied; that cannot be put off- Justice that with the scales carries the sword. Shall we ward the stroke with liturgies and prayers? Shall we avert the decrees of immutable law by raising churches when hungry infants moan and weary mothers weep?”

George explains how labour is robbed when the value of social improvements merely lead to higher land values for private landlords. George explains how equal rights to the Earth also ensure that God's law of labour is allowed to operate. Namely that we naturally need to work in order to live and that we should not steal the forbidden fruit of the labour of our brothers and sisters. Here again we find George's message re-inforced by the life of Jesus, working as a carpenter and later as a teacher of moral and spiritual truths.

In Book X of Progress and Poverty, George also explains how the productivity of labour is stifled by unequal rights to the Earth. Social and economic injustice creates a mountain of additional work for society because of all the extra system maintenance necessary and the great conflict that arises.

He writes:

Here is the law of progress, which will explain all diversities, all advances, all halts, and retrogressions. Men tend to progress just as they come closer together, and by co-operation with each other increase the mental power that may be devoted to improvement, but just as conflict is provoked, or association develops inequality of condition and power, this tendency to progression is lessened, checked and finally reversed…” (Progress and Poverty, 1879, P.507-508)

Importantly, George goes to the trouble of defining conflict:

By conflict I mean not merely warfare and preparation for warfare, but all expenditure of mental power in seeking the gratification of desire at the expense of others, and in resistance to such aggression.”

One does not need to think very long before we can discover a great number of glaring examples of a gross waste of labour and wasted lives in our society that arise as a consequence of trying to prop up the unjust system of the private ownership of land.

For example, social problems have led to an increasing number of our citizens being gaoled over the past decade. At 30 June 2009, 29,317 Australians were locked in prison. Of these 7,386 were indigenous persons. The rate of imprisonment for indigenous people is 14 times higher than the rate for non-indigenous persons. Enormous resources are expended in policing, security, courts and prisons in an attempt to manage and contain the crimes that are occurring against people and property. As Richard has mentioned many of these workers have  even been diverted from their proper task to undertake revenue collection on behalf of the state.

Our complicated system of revenue collection and welfare distribution has led to close to 50,000 public servants being  employed by the Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink combined. These workers are mainly involved in maintenance and trying to address the conflicting effects of our tax and transfer systems.

All of these people could be employed in far more useful, progressive, and rewarding jobs. All of this human energy and co-operative power could be directly deployed in the aid of health, education, the environment, agriculture, scientific research and development. The list goes on.

ABS statistics show that at July 2010, 5.3% of the workforce or 639,000 people were unemployed. We know that these figures could be much worse if the Government had not countered the effects of the Global Financial Crisis with a massive programme of public expenditure over the past two years.

“Manifestly, work is not an end, but a means; manifestly, there can be no real scarcity of work, which is but the means of satisfying material wants, until human wants are all satisfied. How, then, shall we explain the obvious facts which lead men to think and speak as though work were in itself desirable?

Without access to external nature, without the power of availing himself of her substance and forces, man is not merely powerless to produce anything, he ceases to exist in the material world. He himself, in physical body at least, is but a changing form of matter, a passing mode of motion, that must continually be drawn from the reservoirs of external nature…

(Social Problems, 1883, P.130-136)

We know that over 1 million Australians live remain poverty or severe hardship.

We know that land prices in Australia have trebled in a little over a decade making Australia one of the least affordable place in the Western World to purchase a home and that at the same time that wages have struggled to keep pace with the official rate of inflation. As Frank mentioned the high cost of rental accommodation has seen homelessness and personal indebtedness on the rise.

If Australia is ever to become a truly progressive and civilised nation, the work begun in improving the quality of life of our indigenous people and in overhauling our tax system must be continued, refined and strengthened. As a nation we need to elevate our relationship with the land of Australia and with the descendants of its first inhabitants as an integral part of any  move away from our unhealthy reliance on the taxation of labour towards a economically, socially and environmentally progressive system of Rent for revenues. We need to listen to our indigenous people who have been telling us all along that land rights are the essence of life and social justice.

In early May this year, political commentators were criticising the Rudd Government for its limited response to the Henry Tax Review. It was suggested that Mr. Rudd had chosen a safe path to the 2010 Federal Election by putting aside the majority of Henry's Report and focussing mainly upon taxing mining super profits, reducing Company Tax and boosting Superannuation. It appeared likely that the people would swing behind Labor in their attempts to more fairly share the spoils of the Mineral's boom.

Yet in a matter of weeks the big mining companies and their political cohorts had apparently (according to polling) frightened enough people, so as to destabilise the government and bring on the leadership change. People were frightened into believing that their jobs were threatened by the potential withdrawal of international and domestic capital from the mining sector.

The sustained political attack from mining companies has seen ex-Prime Minister Rudd's Mining Super Profit Tax re-badged and diluted under and Prime Minister Gillard's Minerals Resource Rent Tax.

The fact that Mr Rudd was replaced and that the future of the ALP under Ms Gillard now sits on a knife edge (principally for placing the hand of government too near to a great big pile of rent that rightfully belongs to the people) demonstrates very clearly that there is a mountain of Georgist education still required.

That education work needs to address morality and equity not just in relation to mining land but in relation to all land including residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural.

If the Australian public properly understood Henry George's Law of Human Progress and embraced the morality underpinning the reform of government collecting the rent of land in lieu of taxation, the political situation would, of course, be very different.

The education and elevation of public knowledge and beliefs must be in place before a reformist government could safely collect the Rent without being first destroyed.

A reading of the Ken Henry Tax Report and its favourable view of land value taxation would suggest that there may be some Georgist sympathisers at work in the Federal Treasury. Yet the masses of people are vulnerable to the messages of fear and economic misinformation that are pushed through most media outlets.

Henry George wrote in 1883:

“...there is among the masses much dissatisfaction. But there is a lack of that intelligent interest necessary to adapt political organisation to changing conditions. The popular idea of reform seems to be merely a change of men or a change of parties, not a change of system. Political children, we attribute to bad men or wicked parties what really springs from deep general causes. Our two great political parties have really nothing more to propose than the keeping or the taking of the offices from the other party.”

(Social Problems, 1883, Pp.16-19)

We can consider the issue of the need for Georgist Education in light of George's Law of human progress. The majority of Australians lead very busy lives. Much of our time in the workplace and at home is taken up with tasks that seem to get in the way of progress; those tasks that George might view as arising from conflict caused by a denial of natural rights. Hence we have become burdened with a lot of additional maintenance and clean up type work. Some people describe trying to get wage justice through the union movement like trying to “herd Cats” for this reason.

George wrote:

Many there are, too depressed, too embruted with hard toil and the struggle for animal existence, to think for themselves. Therefore the obligation devolves with all the more force on those who can. If thinking men are few, they are for that reason all the more powerful. Let no man imagine that he has no influence. Whoever he may be, and wherever he may be placed, the man who thinks becomes a light and a power.

(Social Problems, 1883, P.242)

My concluding comments are:

  • that if George is correct with his law of human progress (ie. That unless we proceed to associate with each other in equality then society will decay and collapse – and I believe that he is correct) - then one would be hard pressed to find a more important way to spend our spare time than passing on to others the teaching of HG.

  • The Georgist movement was a great force to be reckoned with in the late 19th century. For a period its strength was buttressed by world-wide support among members of Christian churches and members of Trade unions.

  • Given that spare time is scarce the ACT branch is largely focussing on forging links with these two groups in an attempt to reach a broader community understanding about Rent and their entitlement to it.

Ron Johnson, AGG ACT Secretary.

Ronald Johnson

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